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The woman of a censor’s dream

The censor board has been quick to bring out the scissors when female characters challenge patriarchyor simply speak their minds

A still from ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’.
A still from ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’.

It is a routine drill for directors. Even when a film is ready for theatres, after all the creating, negotiating, heckling, orchestrating and splicing is over, there’s still some way to go. There isn’t always scope for negotiation. When the examining or reviewing committees of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) watch a film and decides what should be cut from it, or whether it should go to theatres at all, it could simply be about accepting a diktat. Bans and cuts are common in films dealing with politics, religion and sex, and when it is about a female character who is aware of the needs of her body and mind, the scrutiny tends to be even more rigorous.

Film-makers have to prioritize battles. Alankrita Shrivastava, director of Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), says she has a censor in her head. “Nudity has always been a no in my head because I know that it will be cut." Sanjay Leela Bhansali, director of Padmaavat (2018), barely spoke in public in defence of his film, the story of a Rajput queen that was seen as a blow to Rajput pride. The run-up to its release saw a widespread attack on freedom of speech.

Lipstick Under My Burkha is about four women: a Muslim college student who wears a full-body burkha at home but rebels by shoplifting lipstick and clothes; a Hindu beautician with a robust sex life; a Muslim mother of three with a repressive husband; and the most heartbreaking and deeply-written character, a 55-year-old Hindu widow trying to restart her life by devouring steamy pulp fiction and dreaming of a sexual reawakening.

Shrivastava remembers the day, in early 2017, when the revising committee of the CBFC—usually a motley group of mostly men working with the government in some capacity—called her to the review room after watching her film. The committee had refused to give the film a certificate because the story was “lady-oriented, their fantasy above life" and because “there are contanious (sic) sexual scenes" (whether they meant “continuous" or “contagious" is not yet known). Pahlaj Nihalani, a former producer and director and chairman of CBFC at the time, was direct and categorical: The film won’t get a certificate. Shrivastava stood in front of him, he was sitting. She remembers: “He wasn’t willing to give me an explanation or wait for a question from me. It was like, ‘Please go, this film can’t release.’ I don’t think that would happen to a more well-known director."

Shrivastava decided to cry hoarse. The film had already done the rounds of film festivals in India and other countries and the favourable buzz around it was growing. Besides appealing to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT), she tweeted about her experience with the CBFC chief. The media wrote about it; her producer, her brilliant cast—Konkona Sen Sharma, Ratna Pathak Shah, Aahana Kumra and Plabita Borthakur—spoke about their experience working on the film and why it should be released. That had the Streisand effect—the effort to ban or block the film backfired, and worked in its favour.

Director Alankrita Shrivastava during the filming of ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’.

Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Films decided to distribute Lipstick. Her team devised a marketing strategy focusing on digital media, and the film released in June 2017. On the poster, the “I" in “Lipstick" was no longer just a lipstick. It was also a middle finger.

It was a commercial success. “I got a lot of response from people when it released. There was a lot of curiosity around it. Was there a lot of sex in it? Were there naked women? Many people told me the film had changed their ideas about women’s sexuality."

Lipstick Under My Burkha had ceased to be just a film, as does any work of art that gets banned or restricted on grounds of legal moralism. After the FCAT ordered the film’s release with a few cuts, it became a milestone in the battle against the CBFC’s stand on films that have women protagonists who don’t fit into the neat categories of heroine and vamp, the good woman and the bad woman, and who have desires and live paradoxical lives.

In Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996), two sisters-in-law were shown to be in love. The film was withdrawn by the government and sent back to the CBFC after protests led by the Shiv Sena erupted on its release in 1998. Both times, the CBFC passed the film with a few cuts. The director received death threats. Almost 20 years later, the examining committee of the CBFC refused a certificate to another lesbian love story, Raj Amit Kumar’s Unfreedom (2015). In 2000, an angry crowd of Sangh Parivar and Hindu fundamentalist group supporters attacked the sets of Mehta’s Water at Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi, because it depicted the plight of Hindu widows. The film, about a young widow in Varanasi, had been cleared by the Union information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry before filming began. Eventually, it was shot in another country.

A still from ‘The Dirty Picture’.

Screening on television comes with its own set of problems. In 2012, after 56 cuts, the I&B ministry told Sony Entertainment it couldn’t premiere the Vidya Balan-starrer The Dirty Picture (2011) on TV before 11pm because it was unsuitable for family viewing. In response to a petition seeking a stay on the TV screening, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court put the ball in the ministry’s court, leaving it to take a call on the screening. According to the petition, the story about a film actress had “obscene scenes and vulgar dialogues".

Titles can be a problem too. In November, the ministry dropped the screening of Sanal Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga—despite the title having been changed to S Durga—from the International Film Festival of India in Goa. How could a title even suggest that a Hindu goddess was sexy? In the film, Durga is a north Indian woman who has to brave a night on a highway in Kerala. She is “sexy" in the way every woman on a dimly lit Indian highway is sexy for predators—she is prey.

Padmaavat ran into trouble from Day 1. Hindu fringe groups vandalized Bhansali’s sets and physically attacked him, and later, when it was ready to be released, a nationwide attack was launched on theatres, buses and other public places demanding a ban on the film because it was thought to depict a Rajput queen in an unfavourable light. The film is based on a poem on a fictional queen with whom the 14th century ruler Alauddin Khilji fell in love. The CBFC became a vehicle for delaying the film’s release and changing the title to Padmaavat from “Padmavati".

The CBFC was reported to have suggested cuts in Shashanka Ghosh’s Veere Di Wedding, which released last month. But the CBFC CEO as well as the producers of the film—the story of four millennial women who are open about their sexuality and can’t be reduced to stereotypes—have denied there were problems.

Lesbian, widow, goddess, queen, women who have desires—let’s not have them, the censor committees have repeatedly ruled.

A still from ‘Padmaavat’.

The laws help them. Lawyer Gautam Bhatia lucidly explains the two strands of thought which go into laws that censor free expression in India in his book Offend, Shock or Disturb: Free Speech Under The Indian Constitution (2016). The first is “moral-paternalistic", which restricts speech because human beings are basically corruptible and prone to violence. Hence the jurisprudence on laws on obscenity and contempt of court. The second, which Bhatia calls “liberal-autonomous", is less stringent and is related to areas involving imminent violence, or danger to other constitutional values such as “dignity".

Most Indian films are banned on the ground of dignity because they portray women’s bodies, sexuality or other characteristics; usually, the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act of 1986 is used.

That law is now set to be amended. The Union minister of women and child welfare, Maneka Gandhi, announced in June that the scope of the Act, which can be used to prevent “indecent representation of women in advertisements, publications, writings, paintings or in any other manner", will now be widened to include digital and multimedia platforms based on observations made by a parliamentary standing committee and recommendations from the National Commission for Women (NCW). Will it be used for more aggressive bans and cuts?

Laws also help sustain the box-office sanguinity that relatively “safe" movies provide—movies in which the woman has shame, and changes and adjusts. The women in Lipstick Under My Burkha rattle a mentality that underlines them as disruptive and ungovernable. There is a fear that ambiguity and unanchored dreams, especially in women, can’t be governed. Censorship overrules, more than anything else, the most gratifying part of experiencing cinema—the beautiful paradoxes. How can a woman who wears a neatly-pleated sari and runs a household full of men with moral authority have sexual dreams and erotic telephonic chats with her swimming instructor?

When I was around 11, I remember watching an Assamese film called Agnisnan by director and writer Bhabendra Nath Saikia. It was about an alcoholic, philandering mill owner who marries a young girl from the village and brings her home to live with his first wife, an ordinary, dutiful, plain-speaking woman—ghorua, in Assamese, or homely.

A still from ‘Water’.

The first wife takes revenge by having sex with the son of the domestic help. She gets pregnant, and as does her husband’s second wife. The husband is traumatized, but the woman, played by the brilliant actress Moloya Goswami, tells her husband that if she can live with a child which is his and not hers, he can live with a child which is hers and not his.

I couldn’t really understand the film at the time—in 1985, children watched whatever there was to watch and parents didn’t bother to explain the meaning. Some of my aunts were angry with the film. Now, when I look back, I think the woman’s revenge is the kind of paradox we don’t see in women characters in our films. And the battle against censorship and self-censorship continues.

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